Middle East: Israel’s chief negotiator rules out peace with Palestinians in 2008

The Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said yesterday it was unlikely a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be reached this year and warned that pressure to hurry negotiations could lead to violence.

Livni, 50, the chief Israeli negotiator for the current talks with the Palestinians, is the favourite to replace Ehud Olmert as prime minister when the ruling Kadima party holds leadership elections next month.

The latest peace process, launched in Annapolis in the US in November, was originally intended to produce an agreement by the end of this year.

“I think that any attempt to bridge gaps that maybe it’s premature to bridge, or to reach something that is not the comprehensive agreement that we want to reach, can lead to doing it wrong just because of the pressure,” she told a news conference in Jerusalem. “This can lead to clashes, this can lead to misunderstandings, this can lead to violence as we faced after Camp David 2000 and the circumstances in a way are similar.”

In the months after the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, broke out. Since then more than 4,800 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis have been killed in the conflict.

Livni said all the issues of dispute between Israel and the Palestinians were up for discussion, but she gave no indication of what, if anything, had so far been agreed in months of discussions between the two sides. However, she ruled out any prospect of a right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel and said refugees would return to live in the future Palestinian state.

Talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been under way for several months, but there has been no sign that any concrete agreements have been reached, even in private.

Although Livni is expected to win the Kadima leadership next month, it is not yet clear if she will be able to form a coalition government.

She said she would like to try to lead a coalition, or to form a unity government. She said that would be decided by other coalition parties.

If she fails to form a coalition there would be early general elections. Recent polls have suggested the rightwing opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, of the Likud party, would win. However, a poll in yesterday’s Ha’aretz newspaper put Livni and Netanyahu as equal frontrunners.

Olmert, the current prime minister and Kadima leader, has promised to step down after the primary election next month. He is still being questioned in a series of corruption investigations.

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